“I Spy: a review of Fleur Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX, translated by Gini Alhadeff”, by Tristan Foster

There is a line in Franz Kafka’s letter to his father so shocking in its frankness it is little wonder his mother returned it to sender. Only a few pages in, Kafka writes: “We were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would stand to each other, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me.” Difference will come up again and again in the letter—it is its subject, the hinge everything else swings on. As much as Hermann wants his son to be him, Franz is not his father.

Kafka composed the letter to tell his father in no uncertain terms that he did not know him. What makes this case extraordinary is that the situation seemed so stark to Kafka he believed they posed a risk to each other, as if they were enemies occupying a common territory. The word he uses is gefährlich—dangerous. They were so different their relationship was a hazard.

Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, in her short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, toys with precisely this danger. Published in English for the first time by And Other Stories in a translation by Gini Alhadeff, the stories in XX use the vast difference between people in close quarters for kindling and then pours petrol on the flames. For Jaeggy, human connection is a Sisyphean act—except eventually the boulder rolls back on Sisyphus.

“I Am the Brother of XX”, the title story, examines the relationship between siblings. XX’s brother says that she is a spy—trailing him, monitoring his behaviour. As children they are close, but as her brother grows older he realises this is an illusion. When he needs her she is absent, away living her own life, for they are different people with different minds and desires. And anyway, he has been under surveillance—their relationship was no relationship at all.

Despite the spying—or maybe because of it—XX has an imprecise sense of who her brother is. There are moments of warmth and intimacy which take the appearance of understanding and, so, closeness. When she visits him at his mountain-top boarding school, he feels this tangibly, but also that something is lacking: “Brother and sister love one another. So my schoolmates might have said if they hadn’t been sunk in their perpetual sleep.” Upon understanding that he doesn’t know his sister and she doesn’t know him, he realises he has a problem: “I used to be the brother of the big spy, I had a name, a precise identity—now I’ve become something else.” The influence that XX holds over her younger brother is so strong it splices his personality.

In “The Black Lace Veil”, the narrator discovers a photo of her mother holding an audience with the pope. She finds in it a woman who does not match the one she had known: “I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be so desperate. It was we, her daughter and her son, who always thought we were—the two of us, he and I—desperate. Not mother.” It forces an interrogation of who her mother was, a rethinking of her impulses and her nature. But this is the mother we’re talking about—carer, nurturer, life-giver. The discovery of the photo is one of life’s vertigo-inducing moments, upending everything.

“The Heir” tells of a literal upending. Wealthy yet lonely aristocrat Fraulein von Oelix has taken in ten-year old street urchin Hannelore as company, despite the considerable risks. And anyway, the child is joyful, helpful, eager to please. She is full of life, like a pet dog. But this animal energy is not something the woman can control or even know, and the girl sets the apartment on fire. No use asking why.

“F. K.” tells the story of a friend who has disappeared. The narrator wants her friend back, but her friend’s carer stands in the way. They meet:

The lady is patient. She seems to take an interest in me. But she doesn’t ask questions. She withdraws her sunglasses from a small handbag. And looks at the lake. She explains. Now she is talking. It is warm.

The narrator knows this woman is talking but cannot hear the words. A gulf lies between these women though they sit at the same table. Jaeggy, in her austere prose, jams in an expanse so wide it becomes impossible to know the other person.

Jaeggy’s subject in the collection is distance—the perpetual distance between people. Even the title of the collection is burdened with the impersonal. “I am the brother of XX”—the statement wedges in distance between the siblings, XX (she cannot even be named) at the centre, her brother, the speaker, at a remove. Familial ties or not, closeness cannot to be found here.

Still, we live on a planet with seven billion others: we are not alone, nor do we want to be. A num-ber of these stories are about encounters—ones with great writers, Jaeggy’s real-life friends. Jo-seph Brodsky, Oliver Sacks, Italo Calvino and Ingeborg Bachmann all make appearances. “The Salt Water House” is about a month-long stay in a holiday house on the Tuscan coast with Bach-mann. They forge routines. Italo and Chichita Calvino visit. Roberto Calasso comes for dinner. Bachmann is silent and private but, merely by her presence, dominating: “The rules of the house-hold were immediately clear without having to be stated. Every day the same.” The narrator is bound by her—forced to observe. Bachmann sets the mood. They go out but she wants to return to the house, like it is the only time she can have this familial situation and she doesn’t want to miss it, and, as if by osmosis, they all want to go back to the house.

“An Encounter in the Bronx” tells the story of a dinner with Jaeggy, Oliver Sacks and Calasso. In the beginning, the attention of the story is on Sacks; he is hot blooded, the narrator states, and seeks the cold. But the encounter is not with the Sacks, it is with a fish in the aquarium in the res-taurant where they dine: “For a moment I think that his fate is not different from mine. We are both observing. I may have an advantage, some future, a little bit of time ahead of me. Before be-ing killed.” Jaeggy’s great alchemical skill is that she can snap her fingers and change direction on the reader entirely.

The simple sentences render the actions described as precise and refined. There is no indecision in movement, no uncertainty in action. Jill slaps Jim. The plane cruises at altitude. The tree is bare in winter. It is a certainty that comes from prosperity, with the confidence of knowing the comfort one has will be there tomorrow. It is not merely Jaeggy’s sentences that convey this—her stories are set in this aristocratic world of the rich and the great. Is she proposing that everyone is un-knowable or just those in this social stratum? That wealth and a lack of precarity has made every-one paranoid—a danger to each other?

“The Perfect Choice” suggests an answer. The notion of our inherent unknowability takes a chilling turn in this story. The choice in question is, in the opinion of a mother, the occasion of the death of her son. Of course, this idea is preposterous—death is rarely any choice at all—and that a mother could think that of her son demonstrates the profound disconnect in their relationship. Jaeggy writes: “There are those who have an inborn gift for not being deceived in life.” On the other hand, there are those among us who welcome deception. The son is a nuisance to his mother because he rejects deception—with his death, he is a nuisance no longer, and she is grateful. De-ception, for her, is a balm, and the absence of nuisance is of greater benefit to the mother than the presence of her child.

Jaeggy’s short fiction is ultimately about the strange things humans do—all humans, our strange needs and wants and impulses and the many ways they isolate us—but written in pellucid, matter of fact prose. This incongruity, of outlandish behaviour written an icy precision, forces the reading equivalent of a double-take.

One of the shortest stories in the collection is “Cat”. Its opening line reads: “Observing people is always interesting.” The Janus-face of the author-narrator is here folded into one, as if it is Jaeggy narrating. Indeed, she finds poetry in human behaviour while taking a laconic, bemused view—observing people like a cat watching the street from a third-floor window. In fact, it is a compari-son that is made directly in the story. But of the cat and its prey, a butterfly, she writes: “They dis-tract themselves from agony, abstract themselves from their own death.” With this flourish, Jaeggy overturns any possible connection between herself and the cat. The cat is fearful of death, or may-be merely of its deed, and so turns its face, pretending it is not interested. Jaeggy, on the other hand, never shirks her task. Like the fish in the Bronx aquarium, she stares into death’s eyes, hold-ing her gaze steady for the length of the collection, gripping the wrist of the reader, making sure she stares too.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He has written for Asymptote, Full Stop, Music & Litera-ture and elsewhere. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.